PROVO — Mormon missions ruin football players.
The idea is heresy today, but it was considered gospel inside and outside the LDS Church in the 1950s, '60s and when LaVell Edwards took over as BYU's football coach in 1972. It seemed irrefutable. Nearly everyone believed players left on missions as fiery competitors, strong and fast, and that they returned home soft, weak and slow.
Edwards and his assistants had scant evidence to the contrary, so in his first two seasons, they did what every college coach had done for decades. They told BYU players who left on a missions that they couldn't guarantee them a scholarship when they returned.
It's unimaginable that a coach would yank a scholarship over a decision to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, when 16 different college football teams from coast to coast fielded 162 returned missionaries last fall.
But in 1961, brothers Bruce and David Handley sat in a BYU team meeting with late head coach Hal Mitchell. "Handley," Mitchell said to Bruce, "you still going on that mission?"
"Yes," Bruce said.
"Then you don't need to stay in this meeting," Mitchell said.
Bruce Handley got up and left. David Handley didn't.
"To this day, that's the biggest regret of my life," David Handley, who is 78, said this week, "that I didn't get up and walk out with my brother."
Edwards, the Hall of Fame coach who died Dec. 29, arrived at BYU as an assistant coach in 1962. The story of how he overhauled the missionary culture in the school's football program mirrors other sweeping innovations he introduced to the sport. It starts with players who wanted to shatter mission myths and includes a new LDS Church president who was about to call for a massive expansion of Mormon missionary work.
The earth was flat
Returned missionaries were unusual on college football fields in the 1950s and '60s. "There were occasional exceptions," Edwards wrote in an autobiography, "but generally a mission meant an end to football."
RMs who actually saw the field were rarer still. NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young's father, LeGrande Young, was the first Mormon to come back from a mission and play football at BYU in 1958. It was a display of will that validated LeGrande's nickname, Grit.
"The (negative) atmosphere didn't matter (to Grit)," late BYU equipment manager Floyd Johnson said. "He had too much sand. He was going to play football."
Jack Hill was a unicorn. He starred at Utah State, where he set a school record with 33 points in one game in 1956 and was an All-American running back. Others had success. Rolfe Kerr started at quarterback at Utah State in 1958. Bruce Handley was a two-time all-conference lineman at Weber State College after transferring from BYU in the mid-1960s.
By at least the mid-'60s, Edwards' thinking on missions was evolving. As an assistant coach in 1967, Edwards sent lineman Mel Olson a letter during his mission and assured him he'd have a scholarship when he returned. Still, Edwards admitted in his biography that it was difficult for him as a new head coach to accept players leaving on missions in the middle of their college careers. In 1972, he told quarterback Terry McEwen that if he left on a mission, he would lose his scholarship.
During his first two seasons as head coach, Edwards encouraged players to play all four years, then serve a mission. Some did, like linebacker Blake Murdock, who left after he was an honorable mention All-American in 1976, but before Edwards reversed course, the maxim remained: Mormon missions and football don't mix.
"It was really hard to break through that wall of myths," said one player who would, Lance Reynolds. "It was like the earth was flat."
The first two years
When Edwards took over as head coach, he steadily chewed over the problem in 1972 and '73, recognizing that players were finding themselves wrestling with culture that had come to pit their commitment to the football program against their spiritual commitments.
Meanwhile, Reynolds, an offensive tackle, was unwittingly positioning himself as a player successful enough to challenge the anticipated loss of his scholarship, and the LDS Church was about to get a new president who would change the church's missionary culture.
Reynolds played as a freshman in 1972, the first year in college history that freshmen were eligible to play varsity. He played as a sophomore in 1973, then announced he was going on a mission. Even though he was talented enough that he later would play in the NFL, coaches pulled him in and told him he wouldn't have a scholarship. He was furious and told his father he wouldn't return to BYU.
"LaVell had a great talent for doing this; he smoothed the waters out and listened to me," Reynolds said. "Then he said, 'I want you to know we want you back. You'll have a scholarship when you get back.' "
Soon after, wide receiver Lynn Zwahlen had turned 19 — Mormon men were now mission eligible by that age — and he told Edwards that he, too, was going on a mission. Edwards didn't promise a scholarship, but he told Zwahlen that he hoped his sons John and Jim, then 10 and 8, would make the same decision. Reynolds said Edwards' wife, Patti, later told him that Edwards realized he wouldn't want a coach to pull scholarships from his boys if they chose to serve missions, which they later did.
Zwahlen left for his mission in Tokyo in March 1974. The next month, new LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball gave a talk calling for a "greatly increased missionary force" above the 18,000 serving at the time. The talk didn't have the same instant impact as the mission age change announced by a later church leader, President Thomas S. Monson, who lowered the mission eligibility age for Mormon men to 18 in 2013, but over the next few years the church's mission program did expand dramatically.
"I remember President Kimball’s message," said Elder Craig C. Christensen, a center on the 1974-75 BYU teams and now a General Authority Seventy of the LDS Church. "Personally, I planned on serving. His enthusiasm and vision reinforced that desire in me."
During this time, Edwards was gathering information. On a bus on the way to the airport after a road game, Edwards sat next to BYU baseball coach Glen Tuckett, a former football assistant and the future athletic director who was broadcasting football games on KSL Radio with Paul James. Tuckett was having success with returned missionaries on the baseball team.
"LaVell said, 'Let's talk about missions and missionary work. How do you do it?'" Tuckett said this week. "He knew how important it was to not make a kid feel a guilt trip for leaving. He wanted to support them. I told him to just wish them 'bon voyage,' tell them we'll miss them and that we'll welcome them back with open arms."
Zwahlen said that sometime in the second half of 1974, Edwards sent him a letter and told him he'd have a scholarship when he came home.
The evolution was complete. Edwards had made up his mind by the end of the 1974 season never to ask a player to postpone his mission again. His only requests of players who left for missions would be to give the team plenty of advance notice and to schedule their missions so they would have time to get in shape afterward prior to their next season.
Edwards quickly came to trust that what LeGrande Young, Jack Hill, Rolfe Kerr and Bruce Handley had displayed was a fact. Given a few months to recover from two years away from football, returned missionaries regularly regained their skills.
Changing the culture
He overhauled the missionary culture in BYU's football program, telling players he would have scholarships for them when they returned. They noticed the difference.
"Something changed that year," Elder Christensen said. "When I decided to submit my papers during the fall of 1975, my roommate Tom Bell, a starter, and several more from my class followed. We did not receive any resistance... . When I left on my mission, I was encouraged to return with no threats of losing my scholarship."
Tuckett said Edwards relieved the pressure on the players so they could make a spiritual decision many had prepared for much of their lives.
"He made it comfortable for them to go and told them he'd have a place for them when they came back," Tuckett said. "I thought LaVell handled that beautifully. He found out that with a couple more years of maturity the players mental and spiritual prowess — not a lot of physical prowess comes with a mission — was a boon to the program."
Edwards' unflappable nature contributed to the transition, said Tom Ramage, a former assistant coach. Players left the football field for the mission field and Edwards didn't panic. Other players stepped up.
"LaVell had to make a conscious, legitimate change of direction," said Reynolds, who was an honorable mention All-American in 1977 and served as an assistant coach under Edwards for 20 years after his playing career. "He had to decide to let players go on missions, give them scholarships when they got back and figure out how to handle them when they got back and weren't immediately ready to play. It sounds easy for us now looking back on it now, but he was a new coach, his job was on the line, there was pressure to be successful and win. It was hard to let people go. He decided to support it not knowing where it would lead."
It led to 19 conference championships and a national championship in 1984. In 1974, the program literally had a handful of missionaries, the church had 18,000 missionaries serving, and returned missionaries made up 31 percent of the BYU student body.
"LaVell set the tone so that practically all of our guys are returned missionaries now," Tuckett said.
The 1984 national championship team included 52 returned missionaries. During that season, with President Kimball still had the head of the church, Edwards was asked to speak in the faith's international General Conference. He took a charter flight from an afternoon game in Colorado and spoke at the evening Priesthood session. His talk was titled, "Prepare for a mission."
"If I could draw one general conclusion, it would be that if an athlete could play well before he went on a mission, he will definitely play well when he returns," he said.
In 2016, 79 BYU players were returned missionaries. Those increases mirror the changes in the church, which now has 74,000 missionaries. This year, 65 percent of the BYU student body has served missions.
It was clear, former Edwards assistant coach Tom Ramage said this week, that BYU would not have been as successful if all the football-playing missionaries spawned by President Kimball's talk had played elsewhere.
An innovator17 comments on this story
Edwards had reached the decision in the same steady, deliberate way he chewed over two other ideas that gave his program a competitive advantage and become sweeping innovations that revolutionized college sports — installing a radical passing offense and creating a pipeline of Polynesian recruits.
Today, TV announcers know everything about Mormon missions the way they know the rules governing redshirts and transfers, said former BYU star Vai Sikahema, who served a mission in the middle of his career. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, a former Cougar, recently spoke to Reynolds about the way returned missionaries are entering the NFL from schools all across the country.
"There's no doubt LaVell's influence at BYU had an impact," said Elder Kerr, the former Aggie quarterback and returned missionary who now is an LDS Church emeritus general authority. "LaVell proved it could be done, and done successfully. LaVell knew what he was doing. He knew it was right for the young men. He knew it was right for the church. He knew it was right for BYU, and he knew it was right for the football program.
"Bless his heart he had the vision that this is what should be done and the tenacity to do it."